As many of you know, leaders from over 190 countries participated in the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris from November 30 – December 12. This post gives a quick summary of the conference’s outcome and some interesting perspectives I’ve encountered about it. (You can find complete coverage from the New York Times here.)
At COP21, world leaders created an international framework for supporting and assessing individual countries’ climate change efforts. As this article describes, individual countries submitted emissions targets, formally known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), prior to the conference. Negotiators at the conference then created a framework for supporting these INDCs.
In the final agreement, world leaders aspire to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” The agreement mandates that all countries put together national climate targets, release progress data for expert analysis, and reassess their targets every five years. The final document also differentiates countries’ responsibilities based on their “different national circumstances” instead of making a binary developed/developing country delineation as before. Finally, the agreement declares that developed countries’ should raise at least $100 billion per year to help developing countries meet their targets, starting in 2020. (These monetary contributions aren’t mandatory, as part of a tactic to U.S. Senate-proof the agreement.) For the final agreement to be be binding, at least 55 countries together accounting for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions must approve it by April 2017.
Importantly, the INDCs themselves are voluntary and are not part of the final agreement. At the moment, all countries’ targets added together would only limit warming to 3°C above pre-industrial levels, falling short of the final agreement’s stated goal. Therefore, the mandatory INDC reassessments will be important moving forward.
Optimism and Pessimism
Reactions to the final agreement are mixed. On one hand, the agreement establishes trust, momentum, and a robust international mechanism for moving forward. On the other hand, countries’ current pledges aren’t nearly ambitious enough to avert catastrophic warming effects. A notable pessimistic opinion is from leading climate scientist James Hansen, and a notable optimistic one is from climate activist Bill McKibben.
Social Justice Wins and Losses
Wins: You may have noticed earlier that there are two numbers in the final agreement — 2°C and 1.5°C. Basically, 2°C is a holdover from previous talks, whereas the new and more stringent 1.5°C target acknowledges that even a 2°C increase will put some nations (like the Marshall Islands) underwater. The inclusion of the 1.5°C target is a win for small nations.
Losses: COP21’s usual side-events and protests were banned in light of the Paris terrorist attacks, shutting out “[t]he people facing the worst impacts of climate change” from a rare opportunity to voice their concerns (as this piece points out). Refugees and human rights also got no mentions in the final agreement.
(My Perception of) India’s Take
Like the American media, Indian media reported mixed reactions to the COP21 outcome. Whereas leaders such as Prime Minister Modi seem optimistic, some Indian environmentalists and practitioners worry that the agreement isn’t aggressive enough. However, I found the tone of the Indian coverage to be fundamentally different from that of the American coverage. While American media reported that all countries’ pledges added together aren’t enough to sufficiently curb warming, Indian media reported that developed countries aren’t doing enough. In a way, this mentality makes sense. Developed countries have the means to address climate change and are responsible for most of today’s greenhouse gas emissions, whereas India and other developing countries are resource-strained and concerned with other pressing issues such as poverty and smog.* India’s mentality was evident during the talks, where it pushed for stronger financing commitments from developed countries, asked developed countries to commit to “sustainable lifestyles,” and resisted having to reevaluate and resubmit emissions pledges every five years.
* The interaction between poverty, smog, and the climate targets is quite interesting. On one hand, India believes it needs coal to grow and address poverty, which leads to increased emissions. On the other hand, India needs to reduce local emissions to counter its acute pollution problem, and air quality and climate change are closely tied. [back]